Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Thirty Years Ago...

Meet the original Junk Thief

I was 19 and a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma. My parents bought me my first real camera, a Minolta XK, that I would use professionally for the next 18 years. Later it went with me to West Africa, Nepal, the Andes, Haiti, Tuscany, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Vietnam… But my obsession at the time was my “abandoned things” series. I was able to get a gallery show at my parents Unitarian church and did a 50 copy, self-published brochure of 48 pages with photos and text called Those Left Behind that was a series of photos of taken in salvage yards, most of them taken in the lot my uncle Earsel (yes, that was his actual name). It was filled with ruminations about what it meant to be abandoned on the Great Plains. I did an accompanying slide show at the church gallery show, and preached to the crowd about the vapid, consumerist mall-culture of suburban Oklahoma City. After the polite but silent audience of a dozen or so friends of my parents left, one woman came up to me and tactfully but bluntly said, “Don’t rant at me, my dear. I voted for McGovern!” I would go on to do series on abandoned hotels/motels, forgotten service stations, and the shattered remains of cafeterias. For at least 27 years I’ve considered it to be the feverish rants of a spoiled Mama’s boy. I certainly was, but I’ve actually come to recognize that I had more of a photographic eye than I have given myself credit for. I am especially proud of my insight to nab this now vanished image below of a silvered trailer and vehicle I snapped in Earlsboro, Oklahoma. I never understood what was going on here, and its mystery is what makes it still powerful to me. However, I’m not yet brave enough to post the PROSE I wrote back then or the water colors, pen and inks, and other art. I may have had an eye, but what poured onto the page was the chatter of the true spoiled brat.

That said, here are some prose snapshots from that year three decades ago:

· I wrote constantly and survived on 3-4 hours sleep. There were too many things in my head that I needed to commit to paper. (Some things seem to have come full circle.) On spring break, when most of my contemporaries were sunning and boozing in South Padre Island, I wrote five short plays, three short stories and an undocumented number of poems. I celebrated my 14th year of keeping a journal.

· I shot 70-80 frames of Fuji film a day. And, yes, many of them of me. I look back at some of the poses and bad lighting and gag. But I was 19, and charged with unbridled energy. It thrills me that I can still tap into that stream today. There was no limit to my desire to capture the finest grain of dust I saw flying through the air, evidenced in the 30 boxes of negatives and 20 volumes of text I have from that year alone. And, yes, the very idea of taking color photos was not even considered. I channeling Man Ray and Berenice Abbott and would not compromise my noir integrity to resort to gaudy colors.

· Only now can I fully fathom just how spoiled and worshiped I was by my parents. If they ever did anything to harm me, it was that. It’s a miracle that I am not more warped. Though my Father’s family was the Jewish side, it’s my mother that embodie the stereotypical behavior of the typical Jewish mother. I think she really thought co-ed dorms meant mothers and sons, and ultimately decided that it was better for me to live at home and foot the bill for me commuting 73 miles a day from home to campus to my 12-hours-a-week job at my dad’s office to back home. When I said that I really felt it wasn’t healthy for me to be going to school and living with my parents, they moved out and left me the house. That’s a bit of an exaggeration because they had bought my grandparents larger, new home and let me spend my last two and a half years in their quirky, rambling, 5,200 square foot, five bedroom prairie gothic house that I grew up in. Determined that it was too bourgeois for such an ardent bohemian, I pulled up all the tweed carpeting, threw out the curtains (evidenced in the shot with the windows stripped of their frilly curtains stripped down to only the Spartan Venetian blinds) and gave any furniture with frills to St. Vincent del Paul’s. I set up a dark room in the guest room, and wrote from when I got home from school at 3:20 p.m. (having since quit my job at my dad’s firm for fear of working for The Man) until I went to bed at 2 a.m., When I look back at what I wrote, 99.9% of it makes me want to crawl under the bed. It was all written from the perspective of a child who thought he was writing about the griping experience of life while scared to death to actually take any of it in. I would say I actually have even more diminished writing skills than I did then. But like a stretched sphincter, the wabi sabi integrity of time makes up for sheen of a product never taken out of the wrapper. (That line was written by my inner 19 year old.)

· This was not the summer I lost my virginity (that happened five years early when I seduced a 36-year-old geometry teacher from Elizabeth, NJ, on the north side of Gramercy Park.) But it was the time of my first true “relationship” which consisted of few words and more sensuality than sexuality with an exchange student from Osaka. He set the gold standard for all that followed, though I never knew his last name or phone number. We met every Tuesday and Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m. and occasionally on Sundays when we would go for a stroll around the duck pond east of campus.

· As a double English/Journalism major, I was excited that in just a couple of years I’d be living in Manhattan in a brownstone with a Jewish boyfriend, writing and working on a film project. Everyone told me that I was insane to have such a goal and that it would never happen. The fact that it took another 15 years to materialize may have made it an even richer experience when it did.

· On my soundtrack: Joni Mitchell’s Hejira; Gisela May and the London Sinfonia – Brecht und Weill’s Die Sieben Todsunden; Patti Smith – Radio Ethiopia; Keith Jarrett – Bremen/Lausagne Concerts.

· I was in a course with Joanna Rapf, daughter of Maurice Rapf, a victim of the McCarthy Era Blacklist in Hollywood. I felt she was my own Pauline Kael, and she was the most memorable teacher in my entire life’s education, affirming that the stories in my head had value. She was better known for her film appreciation classes, and she curated the Janus film series at Dale Hall where I finally got to see Bergman and Pabst films that I’d previously only read about in Kael reviews as a preteen when I first subscribed to the New Yorker at age 12. I was thrilled that she asked me to write some of the articles for the campus paper promoting the films. Joanna went on to write a book about Buster Keaton and is reportedly working on a memoir about being the child of the blacklist. I also loved the fact that she trashed all that was wrong with Oklahoma, and I never understood why this woman with Hollywood, Brown and Dartmouth credentials was stuck in the Sooner state. Her affirmation that I was capable of writing more than drivel gave me incredible confidence (and, at the time, a bit too much cockiness).

· Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly and Joan Tewksberry all came to speak on campus that year. I actually had to opportunity to join a group of master’s students who had dinner with Tewksberry who spoke for 90 minutes about her ultimate dream of writing a script about a green beam of light. Of course, she said, even with the credential of having written for Altman, Hollywood would never option the script and she would just have to let the light shine within her.

· After giving me 78 hours notice, my parents took me to see Murder by Death. Walking out the door my mother and I shook our heads and ranted about how horribly trite it was, two feet below
Barefoot in the Park, we agreed. My father said he just love that Truman Capote, best thing he'd seen him do since Uncle Arthur on Bewitched. My mother rolled her eyes as we walked to their sea green Buick LaSabre. Over the next hour over lunch at Alberta's Tea Room she let my father know about the importance of In Cold Blood as a document of isolation and unseen violence in the great plains. At the end of her rant, she turned to me and said, "Gregg, I know you'll end up being a writer in New York, but don't let yourself end up that way." I reminded her that I was not short, Southern or fat, and she smiled down on her plate of tea sandwiches.

· Around the time Joan Tewksberry spoke I began another series of photos of dismembered mannequins. I loved the concept of consumer objects missing part of themselves. This one ws taken in my bedroom. (Note the footlighting, a interior design theme evidenced even a few years before then and continued to this day. Actually that was passed down from my mother's mother who said it "brings drama to the drab abode.") It was my interpretation of the Venus de Milo, though with a more intentional dismemberment. In concert with my earlier and continuing series on abandonment, I felt I was really saying something by showing objects that were ardent in there sense of being inc
omplete. I was 19, I was spoiled, and five year later, every privileged pore of my body would be shattered by tragedies I was not even yet of conceiving as possible. I don't regret having that short period of being so spoiled and free, but I shutter to think how I would have ended up had it not interupted by several cruel realities. But I would -- to paraphrase Peggy Lee -- ask, "Is that all there is to inconceivable tragedy?

· Looking back, I wonder if I would have enjoyed the 1970s more had I experienced it the way that normal people, even "normal" fags did listening to ABBA and watching the Brady Bunch instead of listening to Poulenc, Jarrett, Gisela May and watching Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. I might have felt part of a more collective reality but I don't know that it would have had anything to do with me. I was a teen fag on the prairie who could tell you eveyrone who would be playing at CBGBs that week (subscriber to the Village Voice since 9th grade) and could quote every lyric of Patti Smith's, but I had no idea where Olustee County was or who the Sooners were playing that weekend. It is a reality I will never forget since it lives in me to this day and reminds me of why I can never return since I was already on my way out of Oklahoma the moment I was born.



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